Medley Stars Leon Marchand, Wang Shun Closing in on Phelps-Lochte Stranglehold


by DAVID RIEDER – SENIOR WRITER

02 February 2024, 08:59am

Medley Stars Leon Marchand, Wang Shun Closing in on Phelps-Lochte Stranglehold

In the span of six years, Michael Phelps became the first man in the 200 individual medley to break 1:58, 1:57, 1:56 and 1:55. The world record had belonged to Finland’s Jani Sievinen at 1:58.16 for almost 19 years before Phelps went 1:57.94 at the Santa Clara Invitational in June 2003, one month before the World Championships.

At the ensuing global meet in Barcelon, Spain, Phelps went 1:57.52 in the semifinals before getting all the way down to 1:56.04 in the final. Two weeks later, Phelps raced again at U.S. Nationals and lowered the record further to 1:55.94. It would be four years more before Phelps swam in the 1:54-range for the first time during his seven-gold-medal performance at the 2007 World Championships.

The 200 IM might have become Phelps’ most dominant event if not for the emergence of Ryan Lochte. At the 2005 World Championships, both Laszlo Cseh and Lochte joined Phelps in the sub-1:58 club, and one year after that, Lochte was hot on Phelps’ heels in the event. When Phelps skipped the event at the 2009 World Championships, Lochte took advantage to win gold and break Phelps’ world record.

Two years later, Phelps returned to the event on the global level, and in one of the all-time great duels in swimming history, Lochte held off Phelps to win gold in 1:54.00, lowering his own world record, while Phelps came in at 1:54.16, the fastest time he would ever swim. Lochte ended up winning four world titles in the event while Phelps continued to get the better of his domestic rival at the Olympic level, becoming the only swimmer ever to win four consecutive titles in one race.

It’s been almost eight years since either man raced in an international competition, but they are still the two dominant men in the event. Of the 18 sub-1:54 performances ever recorded, eight belong to Lochte and eight to Phelps. Only in 2023 did a pair of swimmers join them in that exclusive territory. France’s Leon Marchand swam a time of 1:54.82 to win his second consecutive world title in the event before China’s Wang Shun, the Olympic champion two-and-a-half years ago in Tokyo, clocked 1:54.62 for gold at the Asian Games.

The 1:55-club, meanwhile, has become much more crowded over the years, with several times from the polyurethane suit era of 2009 but even more from recent years for a total of 12 men. Active swimmers who have reached 1:55-territory include Americans Shaine CasasMichael AndrewChase Kalisz and Carson Foster plus Great Britain’s Duncan Scott, Japan’s Daiya Seto and Australia’s Mitch Larkin, with others such as Great Britain’s Tom Dean and Italy’s Alberto Razzetti on the cusp.

duncan-scott-

Duncan Scott is among the 200 IM favorites at the upcoming World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Other than Marchand, Scott was the only man to break 1:56 in last year’s World Championships final as he edged out a tight pack of Dean, Casas, Foster and Seto for silver. The next global gathering in the event will take place in less than two weeks in Doha, and while both leading figures in the event, Marchand and Wang, will be absent, the field does include Casas, Foster, Seto, Scott and Razzetti, so we could get a good sense of who could make runs for Olympic medals at the Paris Games in July.

Still, the most high-end potential in this event belongs to Marchand and Wang, the only two men with even a slight chance of overtaking Lochte’s world record and reaching 1:53 for the first time.

Let’s compare the splits of the all-time best performances:

  • Lochte (2011): 24.89, 28.59, 33.03, 27.49
  • Phelps (2011): 24.83, 28.84, 33.13, 27.36
  • Wang (2023): 24.53, 28.85, 33.56, 27.68
  • Marchand (2023): 24.94, 28.66, 32.94, 28.28

The comparison of those splits make it clear that no one has been able to put together the back half necessary to match Lochte or Phelps at their peak. Even Marchand, with his sensational breaststroke, is more than three-quarters of a second back on freestyle, while Wang had plenty of speed but is lacking on breaststroke.

Go back a little further, and you’ll find swimmers with even more extreme struggles coming home. When Andrew swam his best time of 1:55.26 at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, he was out in 23.90 before splitting 29.19 on backstroke and a ridiculous 32.21 on breaststroke, putting Andrew 1.21 seconds under world-record pace. But his painful freestyle leg of 29.96 left him more than a second adrift of the mark. Andrew has not surpassed that time since, and he has not raced the 200 IM in recent years.

So many medley standouts over the eight years, and still no one capable of matching the speed and versatility of these two legendary Americans. Wang and Marchand have positioned themselves best for a run at the mark in 2024, and anyone hitting a 1:53 in the Paris final will likely earn an Olympic gold medal.

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